Column: NASCAR finale a respite from exodus of stars
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — As Kyle Busch walked off the stage following the final race of the year, a NASCAR official told the driver he would see him next season.
“If I don’t retire,” Busch said.
“Wouldn’t be the first guy,” Busch quipped.
Busch was probably just making a joke about Carl Edwards, who lost last year’s championship then abruptly retired right before the start of this season. His decision sparked a radical makeover in which NASCAR’s longtime stars are being replaced by fresh-faced newcomers.
The season finale on Sunday brought an end to the full-time racing careers of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth. Tony Stewart retired right before Edwards did. Jeff Gordon walked away after 2015.
The changing of the guard has raised red flags through NASCAR all season long, though championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway briefly calmed any concerns. NASCAR crowned three new champions across its national series and celebrated a pair of first-time race winners.
Christopher Bell opened the weekend by winning the Truck Series championship, while Chase Briscoe went to victory lane for the first time in his career. Both drivers are 22 and headed to the Xfinity Series next year, Bell for Joe Gibbs Racing and Briscoe in a shared ride announced by Roush Fenway Racing. Briscoe will share the seat with 18-year-old Austin Cindric and Ty Majeski, who is 23.
William Byron won the Xfinity championship while Cole Custer won his first series race. Both are 19. Byron is going Cup racing next year for Hendrick Motorsports and Custer has a long future in the Stewart-Haas Racing organization.
Martin Truex Jr., a journeyman in NASCAR, closed the weekend with his first Cup championship . Although he is 37, he beat three former champions, Busch included.
Chairman Brian France wasn’t concerned about not having proper replacements during this exodus of stars.
“Go down the list, we’ve got a loaded group,” France said before Sunday’s finale. “We’re in a transition. But that happens from time to time. Not usually in the concentrated manner that we have now, but it happens. But we’re excited — we’ve got a great, great bunch of (young drivers) and they’re talented, so we’re in good shape.”
The sentiment was echoed by Roger Penske, who has primed himself for the future with a stout lineup. Although Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are considered series veterans, Logano is only 27 and Keselowski is 33. Added to the mix next year will be 23-year-old Ryan Blaney, rapidly establishing himself as a future star.
His buddies are in the Cup Series, too. Chase Elliott drives for Hendrick Motorsports and narrowly missed a spot in the championship finale, while Darrell Wallace Jr. will drive for Richard Petty Motorsports next season.
Kyle Larson is 24 and the star at Chip Ganassi Racing, while Richard Childress has both of his grandsons to carry the family race team far into the future.
Stewart, co-owner of Custer’s team, has a different view now that he is out of the driver’s seat. He noted that much of the buzz surrounding Homestead was about Earnhardt’s final race, but as he celebrated Custer’s first career Xfinity win, he said the sport is healthy with talent.
“There’s a great crop of young guys coming into the sport,” Stewart said. “The sport is going to be just fine. There’s plenty of good talent that’s coming along that are making names for themselves that will take the places of the guys that are leaving.”
Stewart then told a story straight out of “Days of Thunder,” in which he claimed he was summoned NASCAR’s headquarters in Daytona Beach for a lecture from France.
“He told me something that always stuck with me. He said, ‘This sport has been here long before you got here, and it’ll be here long after you’re gone.’ It really is the truth,” Stewart said. “There were great drivers here before I got here, and there’s great drivers coming behind us.”